3L Griffin Estes is no stranger to public interest service. He is involved in many social justice organizations on and off campus, including Hastings Homeless Legal Services, Habeas Corpus Resource Center, Hastings Prisoner Outreach, SF Pathways to Citizenship Initiative, APILO, and Prisoner Reentry Network.
Below Griffin answers some questions about his experience and drive achieve equality of rights and access to the courts for those who have been marginalized by society.
Why did you want to be a lawyer?
I'm from San Francisco, born and raised, and grew up very close to UC Hastings. Some of my friends got wrapped up in the system when we were juveniles and I saw their struggle to get their lives back on track. I thought that being a lawyer would enable me to advocate for people those situations and just help them out. I have a master’s degree in politics, but I think that a lawyer can make more of a direct change and impact on people’s lives than a politician. In sum, I chose to be a lawyer because it's the most straightforward and apparent way to make a change to the lives of people I care about.
What does justice mean to you?
It's a difficult concept, but in a few words, it’s giving people the tools to self-determine and control their own destinies— having access to housing, healthcare and quality education. I also think justice needs to be achieved through actions. We don't live in a world where things stay the same and it's up to lawyers to adjust to the world's changes and achieve justice discursively. Justice can be fleeting and inaccessible; part of our role as legal advocates is to create lasting change to our clients’ lives. Access to the courts is a serious problem, and hence, so is access to Justice. A lawyer involved in social justice lawyering helps fill that access gap and represents and amplifies marginalized voices.
What do you think are the most critical skills that you’re learning at UC Hastings?
I think the practical skills taught at Hastings are critical and an important part of our education. For example, in criminal law practice, knowing when to make certain motions, how to interview, counsel and clients and how to prepare for trial and create a record for appeal. These skills, taught at Hastings, are essential for young lawyers. The importance of developing a story around our clients in order to humanize them has also been impressed on me at Hastings. Whereas law can abstract away from the needs of people, contextualizing the way in which a legal decision has an effect on the life of a person can have significant persuasive power.
What are you focusing on in your training to become a lawyer?
I'm interested in social justice and public interest, which is why I’m the Managing Director of Hastings Homeless Legal Services (HLS) and President of Hastings Prisoner Outreach (HPO). When it comes to marginalized groups of people, you need to work extra hard to ensure they receive equality of rights. For HPO, we started a new project where we are training prison advocates to contact with inmates who are experiencing extreme forms of confinement or suffering other types of abuse. I think this is important because the way we treat people in vulnerable situations speaks a lot about the society we live in.
What is HLS?
HLS is a clinic that's partnered with and supervised by lawyers from the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), which is part of the Justice & Diversity Center of The Bar Association of San Francisco, and the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP. Each week, anywhere from 5 to 15 UC Hastings students staff a drop-in legal clinic at San Francisco’s largest homeless shelter run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. We assist clients who have difficulty finding housing or have questions about getting benefits. There are many quality of life issues and we give them information on how to resolve these problems after a comprehensive intake and collection of their background information. Many of our clients have outstanding warrants, mostly from minor infractions, that need to be cleared. These warrants can be an enormous road block for those looking to access housing, employment, and government benefits. The warrants-cases give students an opportunity to take part in a long-term legal representation of a person under the supervision of the Orrick attorney's. Those cases usually take a few months to resolve, but give students an opportunity to realize the fruits of their labor while lifting a tremendous burden off the shoulders of a client.
HLS will receive the prestigious Brennan Award from St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco next month, how does that feel?
It feels good to have HLS receive recognition for its work. We have many student leaders who get involved and are eager to give back and get their hands dirty with legal work. St. Vincent de Paul Society does a lot of good for the community and hopefully it encourages other entities, both private and public, to provide more mental health resources, long-term care, and housing to homeless people. Creating solutions to assist those in vulnerable situations can definitely be achieved. In Seattle, for instance, they have a program where they just put homeless people into housing. They discovered that it decreases total costs on the taxpayers because it’s cheaper for the city to house homeless people than it is for them to let them sleep on the streets or continuously arrest them and send them to the hospital. The award increases the exposure for HLS and so hopefully our clinic can serve as a model for others who would like to get involved in giving back to their community.
Since 2006, attorneys from the Orrick law firm have worked collaboratively with UC Hastings law students, under the direction of attorneys from the Homeless Advocacy Project of the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco. This weekly program has provided critical legal services to our shelter clients and has been vital in removing barriers to housing.
Each year, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco bestows the Frank Brennan Award to honor those whose personal actions have had an extraordinary impact on those in need in our city. The funds raised by the Brennan Award provide crucial support for our programs, and enable our mission to offer hope and service on a direct person-to-person basis, working to break the cycles of homelessness and domestic violence. This year’s Brennan Award Dinner will be held on Thursday, October 26, 2017 at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco.